With the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Schubert’s ‘Great’, Mozart’s piano concerto joyful and Schoenberg interesting

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Schoenberg, Mozart, Schubert: Francesco Piemontesi (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Antonello Manacorda (conductor). Tonhalle, Zurich, 16.12.21. (JR)

Francesco Piemontesi (c) Marco Borggreve

Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony No.2, Op.38
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, KV466
Schubert – Symphony No.9 in C major ‘Great’, D944

We are becoming accustomed, during what are, hopefully, the latter stages of this dreadful pandemic, to last minute programme and soloist changes. This concert should have featured Mitsuko Uchida with Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, but Uchida has a back problem and has been told to rest by her doctors. In was supposed to step Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who asked for the concerto to be changed to Mozart’s 24th, but travel restrictions prevented him from coming from Norway into Switzerland, where infection rates remain doggedly high. So best to look around for local pianistic talent and Switzerland is fortunate to have plenty of that. The Tonhalle Orchestra was fortunate to get hold of a soloist of the highest calibre at short notice for three evening concerts: Francesco Piemontesi was available, and asked for the Mozart concerto to be changed to the popular No.20.

Before that, however, some Schoenberg, not a natural bedfellow of either a Mozart piano concerto or a Schubert symphony. I once met Schoenberg’s grandson, an attorney in California, dealing with a legal case involving art stolen by the Nazis. I mentioned my love of classical music and told him I much admired Verklärte Nacht and Gurrelieder, the works which most people who are put off by atonal Schoenberg can tolerate. His retort was that I should hear his grandfather’s Chamber Symphony. Schoenberg wrote two Chamber symphonies and, sadly, I no longer recall which one his grandson was referring to.

We heard, to start the evening’s programme, Schoenberg’s Second Chamber Symphony. His first Chamber Symphony is atonal, his second less innovative, less aggressive, less ascetic – more approachable. Schoenberg began it in 1906 and worked on it intermittently over the next 10 years but only finished it in 1939, when well settled in America.

The first movement, Adagio, is grim in mood, perhaps at that moment Schoenberg was miserable in exile and already fearful of the devastating World War to come. The mood does lift in the second and last movement, Con fuoco-Lento (Schoenberg described it as a ‘turning point’), becoming playful and light-hearted with plenty of fuoco in the Finale, with echoes of Gurrelieder on the last page of the score. It is an interesting piece, through a somewhat strange choice in the festive lead up to Christmas. Antonello Manacorda, an Italian/French conductor making his debut with the Tonhalle, held it all together despite the work’s tricky rhythmic structure. I doubt, though, that many in the audience had come for the Schoenberg.

Mozart’s 20th Piano Concerto belonged in the repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Hummel and Busoni, and some of them wrote cadenzas for both the first and last movements. It is easy to see why: the work is tuneful and easy-going. Piemontesi was simply superb, impressing with both delicate lightness of touch and crisp, faultless finger-work. Manacorda injected plenty of energetic drama and orchestral elan. Rapport between conductor and soloist was remarkable. Piemontesi’s performance was met with yelps of approval. Nobody, I suspect, had missed either Uchida or Andsnes.

Without an open bar due to Covid restrictions, we were soon back in our seats for the second half. Schubert’s ‘Great‘ 9th (or 8th as they insist on numbering it on this side of the Channel) can almost do no wrong. It does not conduct itself, though; and Manacorda, without a score, knew his stuff; the score was clearly under his skin. The work bounded along, even the long third movement sailed joyfully by. The final movement was particularly thrilling and uplifting, with plenty of forward drive. Manacorda dug deep for the final chords before bringing the work to its close in a blaze of glory. It helped that the Tonhalle Orchestra was on good form, the line of trombones, the oboe playing of Simon Fuchs in particular. Manacorda is making a name for himself in opera, conducting Ariadne auf Naxos in Berlin, Madama Butterfly in Frankfurt and Munich, La traviata at Covent Garden – and has conducted the Berlin Philharmonic. He is Chief Conductor of the Potsdam Chamber Academy. He was a founding member of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and concertmaster under Claudio Abbado. I am sure we shall see more of him on the podium.

John Rhodes

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